Nature and Human Societies: Canada and Arctic North America: An Environmental History
November 4, 2013
Review By John Sandlos
In the three decades since environmental history burst onto the academic scene in the United States in the early 1970s, the field experienced impressive growth among American scholars and internationally in arenas such as South Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia. Yet in Canada, a large nation that was founded on natural resource exploitation and whose economy still relies on primary industries to a great degree, the development of environmental history proceeded at a glacial pace in the 1980s and 1990s. One contributing factor was likely the dismal hiring situation in Canadian universities during this period, a situation that stifled innovation and the development of new subfields in many history departments. As late as 2004, Peter Coates wrote in the pages of Environment and History (10, 4:423) that, despite recent signs of enthusiasm for the field, the development of environmental history in Canada “remains a fledgling compared to its American counterpart.”
The publication of Graeme Wynn’s Canada and Arctic North America : An Environmental History will do much to challenge Coates’s assertion that environmental history remains underdeveloped in this country. An expansive work that begins with the retreat of the glaciers and ends with a discussion of global trade and technology transfers, Wynn’s book is the first complete narrative history of environmental change in Canada. It draws not only on an extremely rich body of recent and foundational works in Canadian environmental history but also on a vast literature from aligned subfields such as agricultural history, Native history, and historical geography. So vast is the list of works cited that, for many environmental historians, the bibliography alone would be worth the price of the volume.
But this is not simply an uninspired reference work or a textbook. The narrative stands alone as a dazzling piece of scholarship and storytelling that captures the depth and complexity associated with the history of environmental change in Canada. Here under one cover Wynn accomplishes the monumental task of documenting the most important environmental transformations in Canadian history. He begins twelve millennia ago, with the original colonization of North America, and moves through other epochal moments, such as the advent of European fishing and whaling on the Atlantic coast, the expansion of the fur trade, early settlement in Acadia and the St. Lawrence Valley, and the neotechnic revolution associated with industrialization and urbanization in the twentieth century. Dispersed within the broader historical narrative are chapters devoted to significant resource sectors in Canada, such as mining, fishing, forestry, and energy production. For readers of this journal, British Columbia’s environmental history is amply represented in the chapters that touch on fisheries, forestry, hydroelectric development, and mining. At no time does Wynn sacrifice depth for breadth in his treatment of these diverse themes, and many of the chapters – the ones on energy, northern mining, and trade in particular – break new thematic ground and will serve as foundational statements on their subjects for years to come. Among Canadian environmental historians, Wynn’s work clearly deserves to be regarded not only as our Sgt. Pepper’s (for its innovative and original treatment of emerging subfields within the discipline of environmental history) but also as our White Album (for its comprehensive overview of diverse themes and idioms within the field).
Canada and Arctic North America is also a hard book to put down. Not only is Wynn’s prose engaging and entertaining (infused, as it is, with erudite references to everything from author Jane Urquhart’s The Underpainter to the Canadian film Margaret’s Museum), but Wynn also manages the remarkable feat of telling a gripping story while at the same time placing the seemingly dry stuff of historical environmental change at the centre of his narrative. He nevertheless avoids the temptation, most vividly represented in Jared Diamond’s recent works, to reduce his account of environmental change to a declensionist narrative that foretells inevitable global ecological collapse. Wynn rightly notes that such prophecies of doom not only rely on an oversimplified interpretation of complex human interactions with the natural world but also run the risk of inducing apathy as tales of ecological collapse from the past are interpreted as an unmanageable historical inevitability in the present day. If the results of his approach constitute a somewhat fragmented tale, the book nevertheless holds together under the compelling idea that environmental history might teach us not only about the ecological sins of the past but also about the (admittedly perhaps much rarer) cases in which human communities in Canada have been able to at least begin to address local and, at times, global environmental problems. While this assessment may strike some readers as the overly sanguine view of a specialist in a field devoted to frustratingly complex interpretations of the past, Wynn’s volume is broad enough in its appeal to grasp the attention of senior undergraduate students in history, geography, and environmental studies (students in first and second year might balk at the sheer volume of material in the book) as well as that of any general readers who maintain an interest in environmental issues.
Wynn somewhat pessimistically notes near the end of the book that his attempt at a broad synthesis will invite quibbles from readers over the volume’s inevitable omissions. Obviously, we would all like to see our own favourite topics covered in a representative work (my own list would include more space devoted to wildlife exploitation and the environmental impacts associated with Canadian military activity). My main criticism of Canada and Arctic North America lies, however, with what was included rather than with what was omitted. Indeed, I was never once convinced that an environmental history of Canada should have been lumped in with that of the rest of Arctic North America (i.e., Canada with Alaska tacked on for convenience). The editors of the larger abc-clio series on environmental history (to which this volume belongs) likely adopted this approach in an effort to avoid a stand-alone study of Alaska, a state difficult to lump with the other lower forty-eight, which were subdivided into broad regional studies in other volumes. Although Wynn deftly weaves material on Alaska into the book, it struck me as out of place with the larger narrative, and it raised questions as to why other arguably more important cross-border regional economic and trade linkages between Canada and the United States (i.e., in the Pacific Northwest and in the Great Lakes states and provinces) should not also be examined in the volume.
The uneven relationship between the Alaskan and Canadian material is not enough, however, to tarnish what is a masterful contribution to the growth and development of environmental history in Canada. We finally have a beautifully crafted and far-reaching narrative that accounts for the importance of the natural world in human life through the broad sweep of Canadian history. Wynn’s compelling and comprehensive 144 bc studies account of environmental change in Canada’s past will serve as a central work in the field for many years, if not many decades, to come.